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Apr 23, 2007  •  Post A Comment

April 16 was supposed to be a day like most others in the 68th-largest TV market in the country, Roanoke-Lynchburg, Va., which serves Blacksburg, home to Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University.

Instead it became the day that a student, Cho Seung-Hui, fueled by an impossible-to-comprehend rage and armed with two legally purchased handguns, turned the sprawling but close-knit Virginia Tech campus into the site of the deadliest gunplay ever in the U.S.

For local news teams, it meant dropping everything and testing the limits of their resources to cover perhaps the most personally felt story of their careers.

Bob Lee, the general manager of WDBJ-TV, the dominant news station in the market, was at a funeral 400 miles from his Schurz Communications-owned CBS affiliate, and WDBJ news director Jim Kent was in Las Vegas for the annual RTNDA@NAB conference. They would soon be headed home well ahead of schedule.

Patrick Hodges, a photographer assigned to the WDBJ Blacksburg bureau one county away, followed his news nose to signs of police activity he had seen on his way to work. He was the first person on the air for WDBJ, phoning in several bulletins as more became known about the initial two murders in a dormitory hall.

By 10 a.m., as the extent of the horrific events on campus began to unfold, Program and Promotions Director Mike Bell, the ranking executive at WDBJ until late that day, had told Dave Seidel, assignment editor for the 52-person news operation, that whatever resources he needed that day, he would have.

Mr. Bell yanked commercials and shelved the normal programming for nonstop coverage that would last well into the night. The station broke only to carry “The CBS Evening News With Katie Couric,” which originated from the VT campus, and, after a 45-minute local update on the VT massacre, the CBS prime-time lineup, partly because station executives thought local viewers might need a breather from the grim developments of the day.

The morning of April 16, when it became clear the death toll was much more than two, WSLS-TV General Manager Warren Fiihr quickly bowed out of a Media General meeting in Lynchburg, Va., to drive an hour back to the company’s NBC affiliate in Roanoke.

WSLS stuck with the VT story all day and night, going to the network only for the hourlong “NBC Nightly News” originating from the campus, and for the special “Dateline” that night. The NBC affiliate regularly produces an hourlong 10 p.m. newscast for Grant Communications-owned Fox affiliate WFXR-TV, which simulcast WSLS’s Virginia Tech coverage, as did several local radio stations.

WDBJ’s audio was carried by talk radio WFIR-AM. On Monday, when high winds left some 180,000 homes without the power needed to follow the coverage on TV or Web sites, at least one local resident cranked up his emergency radio and picked up WDBJ’s coverage on the ABC Radio affiliate, he later told the station.

At WSLS, Mr. Fiihr had taken the precautionary measure of putting the station’s transmitter and tower on its generator “because we were taking power hits.”

Roanoke is not a metered market, so there is no way to estimate the local TV audience last week. But both stations saw huge increases in use of their Web sites.

WDBJ, which normally logs about 18,000 unique visitors, 80,000 page views and 6,000 broadband streams, on Monday had 206,000 unique visitors, 800,000 page views and 187,000 streams, Mr. Lee said.

Mr. Fiihr said WSLS’ Web site usually registers about 1.2 million page views per month, but that there were more than 450,000 Monday alone.

For both stations, there was nothing but corporate support all week, even as the blanket preemption of commercials — said by sources to max out in the neighborhood of $500 per 30 seconds — began to ease in between the news conferences and official updates, which in Roanoke were must-carry.

Mr. Bell said Schurz Broadcasting Senior VP Marci Burdick, who chairs the NBC affiliates board, called to say, “Put the budget books away.”

Mr. Fiihr also got support from other Media General stations and newspapers in the form of extra satellite trucks, producers and Web staffers, plus help fielding requests for satellite feeds — “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Dr. Phil” got video, Al-Jazeera did not — as well as from a representative of NBC who worked out of the affiliate.

Hitting Home

For many people at both stations, there’s an additional layer of emotion to the story about what became the worst mass killing in this country’s history. There are deep and broad connections to Virginia Tech.

Mr. Bell, for example, attended VT. He has a son there now. Another son is about to go and a daughter is about to return.

At WSLS, which also has a Blacksburg bureau, Mr. Fiihr estimates at least 80 percent of the newsroom staff are Virginia Tech alums and a couple of the station’s main anchors teach classes there.

“We are very connected to that university,” beyond the sports and other coverage a school of that size commands for the stations in its market, he said.

Both stations quickly made sure grief counseling would be available to employees, although there is no sense yet of how many have sought it. At week’s end, both stations’ staffs were still putting in long, adrenaline-fueled days.

“I don’t think my people have really had a chance to grieve,” Mr. Fiihr said.

For both stations’ top executives, there was the complicated question of how best to show their appreciation for so many jobs well done by their staffs.

“A party doesn’t seem appropriate,” said Mr. Lee, former chairman of the CBS affiliates board.

Tough Call

For Roanoke stations, the heated debate about use of material from the Cho package received by NBC News two days after the massacre was particularly acute.

WDBJ’s Mr. Lee said he doesn’t think the station has used clips from the Cho “manifesto” since the first day it was available.

WSLS posted a statement Thursday afternoon that said: “Initially, NBC Newschannel 10, as well as most other print, broadcast and Internet media, made the decision to air this content as a new development in the investigation. It was the first insight into Cho’s state of mind when he committed these unthinkable acts of violence. But we at Newschannel 10 no longer feel it is newsworthy to air these images or to broadcast the killer’s words. To do so would only cause further pain to an already suffering community.

“We want to point out that we have no control over what NBC network may continue to do with this material,” the statement concluded.

“There has been a lot of backlash in this market, been a lot of backlash to the national coverage in this market, and I think rightfully so and culturally so,” said Mr. Bell, who wishes NBC News had “been a little more upfront, really warning people more than they did” on “Nightly News” the night it revealed the content of the package received from Cho. “I think they tried, but I would have been a lot more stringent.”

Besides the tragedy, the three things Mr. Bell said he’s going to take away from the week’s events are, “No. 1, the media’s treatment of the campus police chief when they posed this question: ?How can you be this dispassionate about it?’ Well, you need this man under control at that very time. You actually want that in a person.”

The second thing, he said, is Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine’s stance at his initial press conference. “He told the media at large that this was not going to be a political hobby horse. He effectively said just get away from those type of questions for now,” Mr. Bell said.

He also cited someone’s description of the most unnerving aspect of seeing the investigators going through the dorm rooms: Cell phones ringing and “you knew it was parents trying to catch their kids,” Mr. Bell said. “I can’t imagine that scene. I’m sitting here crying thinking about it.”

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